‘The goal is to be shipping 50 per cent of Kenyan flower exports by the sea in seven years’ time’

During a visit to the Kenya Flower Council office in Nairobi, FloraCulture International interviewed Clement Tulezi, the CEO, to discuss the current state of the Kenyan flower industry over coffee.

January 2024 marks four years since Clement Tulezi joined the Kenya Flower Council as CEO. Working in Kenya’s flower industry fits him like a glove. In a previous interview with FCI, he said, “Every day is fulfilling. There are no dull moments. The dynamism and day-to-day demands of the industry keep us on our toes.”

Clement Tulezi, CEO of the Kenya Flower Council. “Our industry has matured and can meet stringent requirements imposed by strict European consumers.”

FloraCulture International: What was the biggest challenge brought by the pandemic?

Clement Tulezi: “Shipping and distribution, without any doubt. Before the pandemic, the transport of flowers was largely done via airfreight – between air cargo and passenger planes- and the capacity and costs were adequate. But with Covid-19, everything changed. Passenger flights stopped altogether, and freight costs on the few remaining cargo flights skyrocketed. Even now, when things are back to normal, airfreight from Kenya is still high – probably the highest in the world at U$2.2 per kg (before the pandemic, it was U$1.5).”

How has the industry addressed this?

“The situation brought back to the table a conversation that had started 15 years ago but which had not been truly necessary at the time: sea freight. The need for an efficient, cost-effective transportation option has spurred a series of interesting initiatives, in particular the Seafreight logistics working group, a public/ private initiative launched in 2021, which brings together a variety of stakeholders and sectors: cut flower exporters, sea carriers like Kühne & Nagel or Maersk; service providers like Flowerwatch (providing postharvest and quality cut flower management) or Chrysal (cut flower food); flower, vegetable and fruit growers and exporters; the Dutch Embassy in Kenya and the Kenyan Government. The Kenya Flower Council chairs the initiative and is in charge of its coordination.”

How will this initiative be funded, and what does it comprise?

“Funding of €25 million over five years has been sourced from the European Union under the Trademark Africa Project and the Business Enhancement and Export Enhancement Programme (BEEEP).”

What is the overall goal of this project, and how is it being developed?

“The project has been conceived on a stepwise basis. The first stage comprised research on optimum conditions for transporting different flower types, ensuring perfect conditions for moving flowers from farm to consumer: this primarily focused on achieving a perfect, uninterrupted cold chain and evaluating the benefits of using controlled atmospheres.

A second stage currently under development seeks to establish export supply hubs and deals with consolidation since only a few exporters are able to fill a shipping container fully, and it has become apparent from the first stage that it is much preferable to pack a single type of flower (sometimes even a single variety) at a time. Further, work with government agencies is underway with a goal of making necessary procedures like phytosanitary inspection the most efficient possible, completing it before containers are packed and other measures striving to avoid opening containers at any time in the distribution chain.”

The overall goal is to ship 50 per cent of Kenyan flower exports by sea in seven years’ time. This is ambitious, as currently, that proportion stands at four per cent. However, the robust network of stakeholders working towards this end gives me much confidence.”

What are some specific hurdles encountered?

“Ground transportation, for one. Flowers ship out from the port of Mombassa, currently a good 15 hours of driving away, in refrigerated trucks.”

What about the main achievements and new goals as the project moves forward?

“We have really developed sound knowledge on maritime transport of cut flowers. When and how to ship, achieving optimum storage/shipping conditions, adapting flowers for final sale, and ND OTHERS. Complaints about quality have really gone down – rejections are below ten per cent. Also, the carbon footprint of sea freight is much lower than air freight’s.
Another initiative underway is taking advantage of the existing rail transport network and making it efficient in relation to energy, time, and cost through solar power. Trains could take only seven hours to Mombassa, and powering them with solar energy is a very feasible option. We are looking into this with Flying Swan, a Dutch company with all the necessary expertise and funding from the EU.”

Floriculture in Kenya is making significant progress in biological crop protection.

Will sea freight eventually replace airfreight as the preferred mode of transport for cut flowers exported from Kenya?

“In all honesty, I don’t think so. These are complementary transport options. Airfreight is needed for a last-minute or quick fulfilment of market orders. Sea freight requires careful planning and scheduling, and delivery can take 30 days (still, the flowers arrive in perfect condition). However, joint work with other exporting sectors – especially avocados and mangoes going to the same markets- will allow us to build up volumes and enhance logistics and could reduce shipping times to as little as ten days.”

How about markets for which maritime transport is not feasible – particularly the USA?

“Before the pandemic, many of our members focused on entering the US market. This was accompanied by an effort from the Kenyan Government to establish at least five direct Kenya Airways flights to New York per week, which could offer sufficient and dedicated cargo capacity for flowers. The pandemic disrupted these plans, and flights disappeared; currently, flights to New York operate only three times a week, with no cargo capacity specifically dedicated to flowers. In fact, most of the cargo space is taken up by garments assembled in Kenya! Nevertheless, some Kenyan exporters such as Flamingo flowers have strengthened their presence in the USA, even shipping consumer-ready bouquets.”

Do you have any further thoughts on the present and future of the Kenyan flower industry?

“We have come a long way. Our industry has matured and can meet stringent requirements imposed by strict European consumers; we go to great lengths, some even beyond what is strictly necessary, such as measuring MRLs (Minimum Residue Levels), something that is not required in non-food products such as flowers. We are ready to expand market access and are making strides in Asia (Japan, China, Malaysia) and the Middle East (particularly the Gulf countries). We are solving challenges posed by demanding markets, for example, Australia, which has stringent phytosanitary requirements.

We are well aware that, together with expanding market access, we need to diversify products and presentations. We have started growing more flower types, including many fillers and summer flowers, some of these in the open field. We are improving packaging, promoting bouquets, and working on logistics. This is strictly within sustainability parameters, which are extremely important to us. There is much to do, but the future is optimistic.”

This article was first published in the January 2024 issue of FloraCulture International. The author and photographer is Marta Pizano.

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